Millbrook is owned by General Motors and is a leading vehicle testing centre in the UK. Vehicles are put through their paces here to assess and subsequently refine their handling, performance and safety. Engineers assist vehicle manufacturers with their test and development programmes here and the facility has been used many times on TV. Approaching Millbrook, you know you’re headed somewhere special, as it’s shrouded by trees and protected by security fences and guard huts. It’s an amazing place, which is home to three test tracks: Firstly, the Hill Route, which sees vehicles tested around very sharp bends, fast straights and even over a ski-jump. Then there’s the High Speed Circuit, a 2-mile-long, banked, circular circuit with five lanes, each with their own minimum and maximum speed restrictions and amber lights. And lastly, there’s the City Course, lined with pot holes, speed bumps, turning places and plenty of stopping and starting, to provide real-life urban driving conditions.
I was absolutely thrilled at the prospect of attending the 2012 Test Day, feasting my eyes on Millbrook for the first time, meeting fellow motoring Twitterati and manufacturers’ PR and press teams in the flesh for the first time and enjoying a pleasant lunch. Hang on, I think I’ve forgotten something… the cars. My goodness, the cars!
After the initial safety briefing and a nice chat with Richard from PoloDriver.com, David Hammond (yes, my father, and Vel Satis Owners Club colleague who was assigned to photography duty, equipped with three cameras and other gubbins) and I excitedly stepped out onto the steering pad, where all the manufacturers were, their respective stands forming an outer circle, with other manufacturers inside. Oh, I mustn’t forget that I was also eagerly trying to find my colleague Simon of SimonsCarSpots.com fame, but he had stayed locally overnight and was already deeply engrossed in everything (good on ya, mate!), so we kept playing phone tag til later in the day.
Anyway, like most motoring writers, I had read through the documentation sent to me beforehand by SMMT and had marked the cars I was particularly eager to drive. Quite inevitably, most of the attendees’ first drives of the day weren’t in one of their highlighted cars – and we were no exception. I said a quick hello to Scott Brownlee of Toyota and Lexus before heading out in my Millbrook debut car…
…the Lexus CT200h F-Sport
The CT200h F-Sport sits between the SE-L and SE-L Premium models in the CT range and costs from £27k. The CT is the car featuring Kylie Minogue in the TV adverts and is the first luxury compact full hybrid car in the world. It is powered by a 1.8-litre petrol engine combined with a high-output electric motor plus an advanced, compact battery, together known as Lexus Hybrid Drive. The results are the ability to enjoy silence at low speeds and driving a luxurious, highly-specified car which returns relatively good MPG fuel economy figures whilst emitting low amounts of CO2. As you may expect, the F-Sport version looks a whole lot more aggressive and dynamic, and I personally love its styling, with its darkened wheels, sportier bumpers and grilles and uprated suspension and dampers. Inside, you’re served with the high quality you expect from Lexus, and the F-Sport adds aluminium pedals and a steering wheel with a flat-bottom. The CT200h F-Sport can go from 0-62mph in 10.3 seconds and on to a top speed of 113mph. If you’re a fan of luxurious but sporty cars, the good news is that the F-Sport model doesn’t emit any more CO2 than the standard CT200h and its fuel economy figures are the same too. How did it perform on the Millbrook Hill Route? After having wafted off across the steering pad in tranquil silence, cocooned inside the CT200h, we were very impressed with the way it handled the sharp corners, sweeping bends, challenging camber and undulations on the Hill Route. In fact, despite it feeling quite heavy at times, it handled well enough that we went back round the Hill Route twice more. But okay, it was my first ever time round the route. On the downside, the engine didn’t sound that nice when it was working in full-swing. I often relish the opportunity to get automatic gearboxes to kick down, but the sound of the CT200h when pressed just didn’t do it for me. The CT200h is essentially a posh Prius, so the acceleration from the Hybrid Drive setup wasn’t rapid and the CVT gearbox did at times trip up (but performed smoothly on the whole, I must say). Owing to the tweaked suspension, the ride was on the firm side and the steering was a bit below par and lifeless at times, and driving it in Power mode as opposed to Normal ain’t going to do much for your wallet (not that one tends to look at the MPG readout whilst pounding round the Hill Route!). Overall, although it’s not what you’d call cheap, the F-Sport combines luxury, hatchback dimensions, prestige, great handling and looks, along with relatively environmentally-friendly running costs (only if you drive it in Eco and Normal modes, though) and the cool ability to drive along urban roads in near silence for some of the time.
Oh go on, let’s try the quad-exhaust Lexus rocket while we’re here!
Some cars at the 2012 SMMT Test Day were, as you would expect, more popular than others – and the Lexus IS-F was certainly one of the cars in constant use throughout the day. So in the name of efficiency, we grabbed the chance to drive the IS-F as soon as we’d parked the CT200h up. Chalk and cheese come to mind immediately. Whereas the CT is silent when you press the start button, the IS-F barks into life with a nice throaty rumble coming from its enticing quad exhaust pipes. It’s Lexus’ answer to the BMW M3, Audi RS4 and Mercedes C63 AMG – so it’s got to be good. The imposing bodykit, blingy wheels and the four oval tailpipes set the scene for a pretty exhilarating ride. Sit yourself in the extra-bolstered, supportive front seat, press the ‘on’ button and the steering wheel electrically extends out towards you, as per any settings you’ve saved in the car’s memory. The engine? A lightweight, sophisticated, aluminium, 417bhp 5-litre V8 – tuned all-out with performance firmly in mind. Capable of hitting 60mph in 4.8 seconds and a top speed of 168mph, it’s mated to an 8-speed automatic gearbox, with a manual paddle shift option as well as full automatic. On the approach to and on the Hill Route itself, the IS-F’s engine provided a very nice soundtrack, the 8-speed ‘box shifted smoothly and the car performed excellently in both the speed and handling stakes, the latter owing to Lexus’ Vehicle Dynamics Integrated Management (VDIM), apparently. At slow speeds the engine is pretty quiet unless you prod the pedal keenly, which is a good thing as people don’t want their super-saloons to be hard-edged 100% of the time. Sainsbury’s car park, for example. After the Hill Route, we then took the IS-F around the red route, the High Speed Circuit. It was an exciting moment pulling out onto the bowl for the first time and the IS-F kept up its impressive abilities at speed, too. Despite having gained more confidence on the Hill Route, I still didn’t really push the IS-F too far, and only did one lap of the high speed circuit, but from what I did glean, it’s a great car, well worth its £58k price tag when you find out how technically complex it is – and what’s more, it’s not as common as its rivals, which personally attracts me to the IS-F more. Unlike the C63 and RS4, there’s obviously no estate version of the IS-F available – but if you fancy yourself a thoroughbred performance saloon, seriously consider the IS-F and if you can’t afford a new one, used prices have come down nicely.
Familiarity but no contempt
The night before SMMT Test Day, I had published my Peugeot 508 GT saloon review on SimonsCarSpots.com, so wanted to say hello to and thank Craig at Peugeot. I mentioned how impressed I was by the 508, so without much arm-twisting at all, we found ourselves out on the Hill Route in the Hybrid4 version. I had only very recently spent a week racking up a fair few miles in a 508, but it was nonetheless good to be back in one so soon. The Hybrid4 mixes a 163bhp 2-litre diesel engine driving the front wheels, with a 37bhp electric motor power putting power to the rear wheels, and is based on the Allure version, so doesn’t look quite as enticing visually as the GT. The gearbox proved to be as smooth as in the GT, the Hybrid4 having four options – ZEV full-electric mode in which you can drive a couple of miles on electricity alone, Auto, Sport and 4WD mode which uses both the diesel and the electric motors to drive all four corners. We specifically wanted to see how the 508 Hybrid4 saloon faired on the Hill Route in Auto mode, which is likely what most drivers will leave it in. With the same horsepower available via the two engines compared to the GT with one, the Hybrid4 saloon definitely felt more sluggish, but by no means inadequate for everyday use. The handling around the twists and turns wasn’t as good as in the GT, as this incorporates a drop-link dual-wishbone setup, compared to the Hybrid4’s McPherson-type system – but the Hybrid4 definitely handled well in general terms. The GT can hold its own on B-road blasts whereas the Hybrid4 is more focused on the economic benefits than providing “the drive of your life”. So company car drivers, listen up! The Peugeot 508 Hybrid4 attracts a wonderfully low 10% BIK tax as it emits a tiny 95g/km of CO2 and can return up to 78.5mpg. It’s not cheap to buy at over £31k but if you’re a company car driver who does a lot of motorway miles, the 508 makes sense and comes with plenty of kit and loads of boot space.
The latest, Derv-drinking version of the Hairdressers’ Favourite
The Mercedes-Benz SLK has definitely become more masculine since its redesigns, and out on the open road, I’ve seen more male drivers behind the wheel of the latest model SLK than female – banishing the old notion that the original SLK was primarily driven by hairdressers and tanning studio owners. In fact, I admit I often mistake the new SLK for the SL when I first spot the face of one. I’m somewhat enthusiastic about convertibles but believe that even with the best will in the world, they’re better off with a petrol engine under the bonnet. So it was going to be interesting taking the Calcite White SLK 250 CDI BlueEfficiency AMG Sport out for a spin. Every car I’d driven so far today at Millbrook had keyless start, but the SLK needed the key fob inserting and turning. The engine had a hint of sportiness to its note but being a 2.2-litre diesel with 204bhp, the hairs on the back of my neck stayed down this time. All the controls were easy to get the hang of and it felt a safe car to drive at speed around the Hill Route and High Speed Circuit. It certainly wasn’t slow by any means, but for whatever reason, my hearing was constantly tuned in to the engine to see how much diesel-ness it displayed. Okay, it was reasonably torquey, but I just felt a slight sense of disappointment each time I floored it, thinking to myself that a sexy-looking 2-seater convertible like this, costing in excess of £40k, really is better suited to a petrol engine. A compromise car, that’s what it felt like to me. Maybe it’s because I didn’t spend more than two Hill Route laps in it, but I managed to appreciate the aforementioned cars more readily as they didn’t give me a feeling of compromise. Don’t get me wrong, the SLK AMG Sport did handle pretty well, the 7-speed auto gearbox was smooth, there was definitely a bit of power there to play with and it was very well equipped and quite luxurious (as it should be for £44k!), but the engine did clatter a bit when pushed, there was obvious road noise on poorer surfaces and its handling was satisfactory but not revolutionary. Still a great car, though.
At long last – a taste of plutocracy
As many of you will know, my favourite cars are large, powerful saloons – especially ones which go about their business without shouting too loud. So I have long held a strong admiration for the Bentley Continental Flying Spur and I am well known for my obsession with the W12 engine. So ever since I set eyes on the manufacturers’ stands at SMMT Test Day 2012, I was itching to finally sit behind the wheel of the Flying Spur. Many people would be perplexed at why I favoured having a go in the saloon over the Continental Convertible SuperSports ISR, but the Flying Spur was obviously still popular (and thirsty!) as one of the Bentley crew (no pun regarding their birthplace intended!) had to go off and fill the tank, before we could hop in. It was worth the wait, finally sitting in this canal-boat-long, hewn-from-granite beast of a luxury saloon. The Flying Spur ‘Speed’ looked awesome in black, with its red and black colour scheme inside. The Speed is lower than the standard Spur, with aggressive 20” alloys and a black grille. It also packs in 600bhp and is capable of 200mph, hauling its 3-ton weight to 60mph in an amazing 4.5 seconds. Many Flying Spur owners will spend at least some of their time being driven as opposed to doing the driving, so we left the Speed in full automatic mode to see what it was like. This and the Bentley Mulsanne were only allowed on the green-signed Road Route around the local Bedfordshire area – which suited me fine! Naturally, as soon as we were clear of the security gates and pointed towards a stretch of empty country road, I buried my foot into the carpet to see whether the Flying Spur brought back memories of my ride in a W12-engined Volkswagen Phaeton some years ago. The acceleration speed and noise from the Spur were lovely, but it did seem a bit laggy. Simon chauffeured some fellow motoring tweeters around in the same Flying Spur Speed at a different time today and put it in Sport mode, in which there was no noticeable lag. At slow speeds, you just knew you were sat behind something special, silky smooth for now, but with masses of power in reserve if you want it. The red and black interior was beautiful too and although we didn’t have the chance to properly sample the audio system, I was pleased to see one of the very best names on it – Naim. The funny thing is, being finally sat in a car I’ve longed to experience for ages, I couldn’t help but feel that it’s not worth the £133k price when some of the stalks and other controls felt undeniably cheap compared to the 5-litre V8 Jaguar XJ Supersport LWB, which costs quite a lot less at £94k but offers the same blistering acceleration thrills (perhaps more so, actually), along with slightly more sophistication and comfort, all with a very high quality finish. I still wouldn’t say no to a Flying Spur Speed, but perhaps the Bentley is bought because of its badge, whereas if prospective buyers knew an XJ Supersport does very similar for less, then maybe they’d think twice.
Ticking off my priority of the day
I didn’t want to look back on my first SMMT Test Day not having driven my number one priority, so I’m glad to say I finally got round to driving it, after having revisited the manufacturer in question’s stand several times to no avail. The car I’m talking about is the Porsche Panamera GTS. I know a few other attendees probably thought the Panamera GTS was a strange choice, but I love fast saloons and love Porsches, especially GTS-badged ones – so it made sense that this was top of my hit list. Hordes of others were also keen to try the Panam’ GTS which looked oh-so-aggressive in white, with its black alloys and huge red callipers – so it’s no surprise I had to show perseverance in order to get behind the wheel. All the cars Porsche brought along came with a co-driver to accompany you, which was fine as he gave me some useful tips to eek extra pace and handling out of it, along with a few interesting bits of info about the car. The GTS version sits below the range-topping Turbo model and prices start around £92k. It still packs a 4.8-litre V8 but has been tweaked with a sports exhaust, larger air intake, new camshafts, firmer suspension, a 10mm lower ride height, enormous brake discs and a wider rear track. Naturally, the GTS’ bodykit is altogether more hardcore, too, but doesn’t look OTT. David had to take photos from the back seat this time and found the rear surprisingly commodious and comfortable, with sculpted and supportive seats and pretty good visibility. The Panamera GTS can be turned at the push of a button into a more laid-back cruiser of a saloon, but for the Hill Route, we kept it in normal mode to start with, before pressing the Sport button on the 2nd lap. We’ve heard some lovely exhaust notes throughout today and the GTS continues that trend. Porsche have specifically designed the car so that you can choose what kind of exhaust sound you want. Not being able to compare it to any Panameras I’ve driven previously, all I’ll say it that the GTS did feel the best-handling car of the day, out of the ones we drove. Grip, handling and pace were all there in abundance, especially so in Sport mode. The PDK automatic gearbox didn’t hinder things at all, in my view – but yes, I was concentrating on treating it with respect on the Hill Route and on listening to the Porsche guy’s advice, so no doubt if you want your GTS even rawer, you can use the paddle shifters. We immensely enjoyed the Panamera GTS and just wish we could have done twenty laps around the Hill Route in it, not two. How do you translate Veni, Vidi, Vici into German?
Fancy an Italian?
That would be a silly question so soon after the lovely pork dish we had enjoyed for lunch, but of course I’m referring to an Italian car, not food. Ferrari wasn’t at SMMT Test Day, so it was a car from the other ‘F’ that we drove. Well, ‘A’ if I’m being more accurate, although it was at the Fiat stand – the Abarth Punto Evo. It looked splendid in Velocity Red, adorned with all the usual visual bells and whistles that come as part of the Abarth package – Brembo brakes, revised front and rear bumpers, lowered suspension and side stripe, to name but a few. The interior was on the basic side and plasticy in places, but the sports seats were nice and supportive and all the clues around the cabin pointed at one thing, really – fun. The Abarth Punto Evo has a 4-cylinder 1.4 Turbo MultiAir engine putting out 165bhp, with a 0-60mph time of 7.9 seconds and a top speed of 132mph. Driving out towards the Hill Route, the ride felt controlled and sporty but not overly firm. The clutch was very forgiving, making the car easy and pleasurable to drive, as did the gearing, and it could certainly pick up speed when you went through the gears with your foot down. The spirited acceleration was met with decent handling, but I’d obviously got carried away with all the extra-grippy super saloons throughout the day and got the Abarth’s back out slightly on a corner. It felt fun, though, and didn’t really dampen my desire to push the little fella hard around the Hill Route a few times. We then took it out onto the High Speed Circuit and did a couple of laps of the bowl, where it certainly didn’t feel embarrassed or misplaced. I really did enjoy the MultiAir Italian. It’s a bit rough in places but any shortcomings over the interior are cancelled out by the fun it serves up, and costing £18k including all the options, it’s one to consider for you hot supermini lovers out there.
Ending the day in a Spitfire
I had already driven the mind-blowing Jaguar XKR-S Convertible at Jaguar Land Rover (JLR) in Gaydon in March, but it kept catching pop’s eye throughout the day, so after a quick chat with a much-loved motoring writer, I took him for a spin in the Jag’. And boy did he love it. We set off with it in Sport mode, where it remained. The interior is slightly plasticy in one or two places, but who cares – this car performs and sounds like nothing else. It’s awesome! Being a drop-top, you might think the ride wouldn’t be as settled and it might suffer from slight shake – but no, the XKR-S handles very tightly and makes even the most inexperienced driver feel on top of the world. The bog-standard (if there is such a thing) XKR Coupe ‘only’ has 503bhp, whereas this XKR-S Convertible monster has 542bhp! And you can tell. Press your right foot slightly too hard and the car can struggle to reign in the 502 lb ft of torque. But get it right and it’s a dream, catching the horizon as fast as you want it to, with a soundtrack which many have described as being like a Spitfire. Braking is equally impressive and the Hill Route was just brought to life even more by this wonder of a car, which costs £103k. I went to sleep at night hearing the XKR-S’s snap, crackle and pop exhaust tune in my mind. This is a car you’ll never forget.
No T-Shirt, but I did get a huge Toblerone!
It goes without saying that I would like to say a massive thank you to SMMT for inviting me down to their 2012 TestDay at Millbrook. I enjoyed every minute of it and it was a bonus that most of the day was bathed in glorious sunshine after the cooler, misty start. The only slight disappointment was not driving the BMW 640d Gran Coupe, which everyone who drove raved about. But hey, nobody who went drove everything and hopefully I’ll experience a 6-Series Gran Coupe some other time. A lot of today was about meeting all the manufacturers’ PR teams with whom I’ve been in regular email and phone contact with for a while now. It was great to meet each and every one of you – you know who you are! It was also super to meet the real-life people I communicate with on a daily or weekly basis on Twitter. Again, you know who you are, and I’ve already given you shout-outs on Twitter. You’re all fantastic people and it was great to spend the day with you. I look forward to seeing you all again soon. And as someone who turns pink readily after standing around in the sun, a big thanks to Skoda for whetting our whistles with your delicious drinks, to Mitsubishi for saving the day with some sun tan lotion (cheers again, S! x) and to Kia for ending the day by giving me a super-size Toblerone. No, I didn’t eat it on the journey home from Bedford to Manchester! Talking of the journey parts of the day (spent in the Peugeot 3008 Sportium press car – review coming soon), it was a proud day to co-represent SimonsCarSpots.com at SMMT and true to form, I got some great snaps on the way home. Such a Utopian day will be remembered for a long time. Take care and see you all again soon.
© Oliver Hammond, 2012